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10:55 am
Sat January 11, 2014

Doctorow Ruminates On How A 'Brain' Becomes A Mind

When does our brain become our mind? Our heart? How does it become us, whatever we are? And how do we live with memories when they begin to burst inside?

E.L. Doctorow's new novel is called Andrew's Brain, and it plunges inside the brain of a man who tells the story of trying to outrun the memories rattling around in there, of a disaster he blames on himself, a daughter he couldn't hold close, and an indelible crime that overwhelms his world.

Doctorow is one of the most honored novelists in the world, the author of Ragtime, World's Fair, Billy Bathgate, and more.

He tells NPR's Scott Simon that Andrew's Brain began with one of his own memories.

"Many years ago, I worked for a man, a good decent man, in the movie business," he says. "He told me one day, that years before, he had been feeding medicine to his infant child with an eyedropper, and it was the wrong medication, and as a result, the child died."

"He had a couple of other stories that made me realize he was an inadvertent agent of disaster," Doctorow says, "leaving a wake behind him of terrible events."

"I also had the image in my mind, and I don't know where it came from, of a girl with colored pencils, drawing on a pad," he adds. "She sees an adult trying to see what she's done, and so she takes the pencil in her hand and scribbles over what she's been so carefully doing. And those two images somehow combined in some sort of evocative way, and got me writing this book."


Interview Highlights

On writing convincingly from inside the mind of Andrew, a cognitive scientist

The ideal way to get involved in this sort of work is to write in order to find out what you're writing. You don't start with an outline and a plan, you start with these images that are very evocative to you. And in this case, it's the first line in the book, where's Andrew's saying, I can tell you what I'm about to tell you, but it's not pretty. And suddenly you find yourself with your character. And it occurs to you that he's a cognitive scientist. I don't know why, but it just does. The book is constructed as someone mostly talking, and someone mostly listening — sort of like radio! And he's talking to someone who might be a shrink or some sort of questioner, and telling the story of how he's got into this mess.

On the brain versus the mind

The neuroscientists who accept the materiality of mind, who find the soul is pure fiction, don't know yet how the brain becomes the mind, how this three-pound, neuro-electric system in our skulls produces our subjective life, our feelings, our thoughts, our memories. There are people building computers to emulate the brain. If it ever happens, as Andrew in the book assures us, it's the end of the mythic world we've lived in since the Bronze Age. The end of the Bible and all the stories we've told ourselves until now. So he feels the impact of that would be equivalent to a planetary disaster like an asteroid hitting the Earth.

On breaking away from historical novels

Some people think of me as a historical novelst — I don't agree with that. I think all novels are about the past, the near past, the far past, some of them have a wider focus and include more of society and recognizable events and people. The historical novel seems to me a misnomer, and many of my books take place in different places, in the Dakotas, or down south in Georgia or the Carolinas, so it's just as valid to call me a geographical novelist as an historical novelist. I think of myself really as a national novelist, as an American novelist writing about my country.

On the position of the novel, of storytelling

Fiction is the most conservative of the arts. If you think historically, what has happened in music or among the poets — Whitman in the 19th century just destroying romantic poetry and building a whole kind of new thing. The ideas carried along by the artists who keep changing, keep looking for more, something truer, something greater. But generally speaking, the insistence on storytelling of a realistic nature has predominated and continued in the old ways. So what I'm guided by — perhaps it's futile — is Ezra Pound's injunction, when he was talking to the poets, he said, "make it new, make it new." And that's what must have been provoking me when this book came along.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When - how - does our brain become our mind? Our heart? Us - whatever we are. And how do we live with memories when they begin to burst inside? E.L. Doctorow's new novel is "Andrew's Brain," and it plunges inside the brain of a man who tells the story of a man who is trying to outrun the memories rattling around in there; of a disaster he blames on himself, a daughter he couldn't hold close, and an indelible crime that overwhelms his world. E.L. Doctorow is one of the most honored novelists in the world, the author of "The Book of Daniel," "Ragtime," "World's Fair," "Billy Bathgate," and many other novels. He joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

E.L. DOCTOROW: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: I gather you've got a personal memory of something that happened to a friend that set off this idea for a novel in your mind. Can you talk about that?

DOCTOROW: Yes. Many years ago, I worked for a man, a good decent man in the movie business. And he told me one day that years before he had been feeding medicine to his infant child with an eye dropper and it was the wrong medication. And as a result, the child died. And he had a couple of other stories that made me realize that he was an inadvertent agent of disaster, leaving a wake behind him of terrible events. And I also had the image in my mind - I don't know where it came from - of a girl with colored pencils drawing on a pad and then she sees an adult trying to see what she's done. And so she takes the pencil in her hand and scribbles over what she's been so carefully doing. And those two images somehow combined in some sort of evocative way and got me writing this book.

SIMON: Your protagonist, Andrew, is a cognitive scientist. Now, this doesn't seem to be the same thing as trying to write a novel from the mind of a man who is a bus driver. How do you write convincingly from inside the mind and skin of a cognitive scientist?

DOCTOROW: The ideal way to get involved in this sort of work is to write in order to find out what you're writing. You don't start with an outline and a plan, you start from these images that are very evocative to you. And in this case, it's the first line in the book, where's Andrew's saying I can tell you what I'm about to tell you, but it's not pretty. And suddenly you find yourself with your character. And it occurs to you that he's a cognitive scientist. I don't know why, but it just does. The book is constructed as someone mostly talking and someone mostly listening - sort of like radio. And he's talking to someone who might be a shrink or some sort of questioner, and telling the story of how he's got into this mess.

SIMON: You are so celebrated for best-selling historical novels - and there is some gripping history here in the scenes following September 11th, but why did you want to try to this forum?

DOCTOROW: Well, I know some people think of me as a historical novelist. I don't agree with that. I think all novels are about the past, the near past, the far past. Some of them have a wider focus and include more of society and recognizable events and people. The historical novel seems to me a misnomer. And many of my books take place in different places - in the Dakotas, or down south in Georgia or the Carolinas - so it's just as valid to call me a geographical novelist as an historical novelist. I think of myself really as a national novelist, as an American novelist writing about my country.

SIMON: Can I ask you a couple of biographical questions?

DOCTOROW: Sure.

SIMON: So, you went to Kenyon with Paul Newman?

DOCTOROW: Well, Newman was a senior and a veteran when I got there as a freshman. And only when he left Kenyon that I began to get some decent roles in the drama club.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: So, you were under consideration for, like, "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Hustler" and all that stuff?

DOCTOROW: At that time, I wanted to be playwright, and I thought I should really get on the stage and feel what the experience is when I was an actor. But we knew Newman was the real thing. We all knew that.

SIMON: Yeah. And then you were also, I gather, an editor who worked with both Ian Fleming and Ayn Rand.

DOCTOROW: That is correct. I was a young editor. And Fleming was a charming man. I liked him enormously. I liked him better than I liked his books actually. He had my first novel and was very, very kind to me about that. Ayn Rand was another case all together. She and I really didn't get along. But she was a tough cookie.

SIMON: Among the many question this novel keeps raising is it invites the reader to try to figure out what are we really? And it's asking what's the position of the novel, the story, not even just the novel as a forum, but the story.

DOCTOROW: What I've learned doing this kind of work is that fiction is the most conservative of the arts. If you think historically what has happened in music or among the poets - Whitman in the 19th century just destroying romantic poetry and building a whole kind of new thing. The ideas carried along by the artists who keep changing, keep looking for more, or for something truer, something greater. But generally speaking, the insistence on storytelling of a realistic nature has predominated and continued in the old ways. So, what I'm guided by - perhaps it's futile - is Ezra Pound's injunction. When he was talking to the poets, he said make it new, make it new. And that's what must have been provoking me when this book came along.

SIMON: Well, E.L. Doctorow. His new novel, "Andrew's Brain." Thanks so much for being with us.

DOCTOROW: It's my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.